Modular Synthesizers

I am putting together a small modular synthesiser setup. Modular synthesizers are synthesizers composed of small individual modules, which are wired up to create a circuit for producing sound. They were very popular in the 1970s, with big bands such as Emmerson, Lake and Palmer, Kraftwerk and Jean Michael Jarre all owning big modular setups:

Keith Emerson's Modular Synthesiser

Modular synthesisers have had a resurgence in recent years with modern versions becoming available. One producer of modular synthesiser modules is Doepfer, a German company who’s modular synthesizer standard ‘Eurorack’ has become very popular recently. I have decided to build a small Eurorack modular, here it is so far:

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The blank plates are spaces for modules that I haven’t bought yet, I am slowly accumulating them. I have currently been wiring my modular setup to my ‘semi-modular’ synths. They include the Microbrute, and 2x Dark Energy MK1s synths, shown below:

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A semi-modular synth is a similar to a standard synthesizer, where all the synthesizer functions are self-contained in one case e.g. they are not just lots of modules. A semi-modular synth will work in its own right, without any additional wiring required. However, a semi-modular synth also has inputs which allow you to optionally wire up the semi-modular synth to other modules and semi-modular synths. So, it allows you to make one big sound processing circuit with all your synths wired together. Which is what I’ve been doing:

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So, not quite Keith Emerson, but it’s a start! But why would you do this, I hear you ask. What possible reason would you have for wiring up synthesisers in this manner? Well:

  • It expands the creative potential of your synthesizers. Instead of just having a few ways of creating sounds, you now have a lot more. Modular synthesisers have been used heavily in EA Games ‘The Sims 3’ for sound effects. Oscar-winning ‘The Social Network’ soundtrack by Trent Reznor uses modular synthesizers heavily, and more.
  • It allows you to build a synthesizer exactly the way you want to, with all the features you wanted for the type of music you make.
  • You end up learning a LOT about synthesis and how synthesizers are made, which can feed in to better sound design in the future, not to mention if you have an interest in electronics and music technology, this is a great way to learn.
  • If you are inspired musically by the technical side of music technology, (and a lot of producers such as Deadmau5 are) then it gives you another creative workflow to experiment with.
  • It’s fun. Wiring up things experimentally and creating sounds you never could have predicted would happen. The combinations are so exponential that you usually have no idea what will happen, and it’s almost like the machine created sounds just for you.

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